Viennese Connections – Dame Malvina Major and the NZSO

MOZART – Symphony No.41 “Jupiter” / J.STRAUSS Jnr. – Overture and Czardas from “Die Fledermaus”, “Thunder and Lightning” Polka / LEHAR – “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss” from “Giuditta”, “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” from “Paganini”, “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, Waltz “Gold and Silver” / SIECYNSKI – “Wien, wien, nur du Allein”

Dame Malvina Major (soprano)

Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Saturday, 15th May,2010

(A “guest review” by Peter Coates of this concert appears at the end of this article)

Enthusiasts for fine orchestral playing would have been thoroughly diverted by the chance to compare the NZSO’s playing of the Mozart “Jupiter” Symphony in this concert with that of those recent visitors to this country for the International Arts Festival, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Unfortunately I didn’t get to the concert at which the latter played this particular work, although I did hear the “Prague”, and thus was able to glean something of the orchestra’s style and their particular sound. What struck me with the NZSO’s performance with Tecwyn Evans was how stylish everything sounded, given that the timbres weren’t quite as “characterful” (an authenticist’s euphemism) as those of the Freiburg Ensemble. The key to everything was in the balance between orchestral sections – here winds, brass and timpani were given every opportunity to “speak”, both with solo lines (the playing of both oboist Robert Orr and timpanist Larry Reese a constant delight) and in ensemble, for once properly counterweighting Mozart’s superb string-writing. It made for an absorbing narrative of interaction, especially during the first and last movements, and enhanced by the decision to play all repeats, the amplifications making the symphony truly “Jupiter-like”.

That word “characterful” kept reappearing in my notes hastily scribbled during the performance, referring to various felicitous detailings – the pair of deliciously-played bassoons in thirds during the first movement development, the extra depth of sound asked for and got by the conductor for the second movement’s minor-key episode (and such tenderness in the phrasing of the strings at the recapitulation!) – and the enlivening of the opening melodic lines of the finale by those urgent, scampering accompaniments, already suggesting the fugal ferment to follow. Again, the repeats enlarged the music’s span, properly suggesting vast, imperious orbits of energy around which conductor and players readily danced that joyous cosmic dance proposed and then led by the composer. Life-enhancing stuff!

After the intoxicating draughts of the symphony, it seemed to me the champagne flowed more fitfully during the second half, though there were good moments, especially with Dame Malvina Major, again, the concert’s true centerpiece. Her voice seemed on fine form once again, though again in certain places I found it difficult to “place” her tones as a soloist to those of the orchestra’s. For that reason I enjoyed her singing more the previous night, because we seemed to actually hear more of her – in places the voice seemed subsumed by orchestral textures as if a wind instrument in an ensemble. Oddly enough I sat a lot closer to her on this occasion, but such are the vagaries of concert-hall acoustics!

Best were the Dame’s Lehar items – from “Giuditta” we got a finely-spun “Meine Lippen, sie kussen so heiss”, the voice sustaining the line of the introduction, and then melting us with the awakening of the main tune, including a lovely hushed ascent at the end of the first verse. Finely-honed, sinuous wind accompaniments supported the singing to near-perfection. Again, in “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden”, from “Paganini”, the voice had a silvery, wonderfully-focused aspect throughout, enhanced by the hushed orchestral playing – a lovely cushion of sound for a singer.

Inevitably, and rightly, the programme finished with one of Malvina’s calling cards, the “Vilja” from “Die Lustige Witwe”, sung in English, the voice slightly masked by the orchestra throughout the verses, but clear and lovely for the soaring tune and reprise, the singer treating us to a brief, skilfully floated stratospheric ascent the second time round, during which time itself seemed to pause and listen.

Again, the more strenuous items seemed to suit the voice less well – the “Czardas” from “Die Fledermaus” (Johann Strauss Jnr.) ultimately required more power, despite moments of lovely detailing (some skilful high trumpet work in the “friss” section), and the balance again seeming to over-favour the orchestra in Sieczynski’s popular “Wien, Wien nur du Allein”. It will be interesting to read reports of the concerts featuring this same programme from further up the island over the touring week – in different venues, the voice-and-orchestra balance may well shift, hopefully towards the side of the singer.

The programme was “fleshed out” a little with some purely orchestral items – and I wish Tecwyn Evans hadn’t agreed to conduct such a horribly truncated version of one of the greatest of all concert waltzes, Lehar’s “Gold and Silver”! Shorn of all repeats, and with at least one important reprise completely excised, the work became a trite collection of pretty waltz tunes, one meaninglessly following the other. Thank goodness for Strauss’s “Die Fledermaus” Overture – spirited and theatrical – and for the rumbustions “Thunder and Lightning” Polka, though anybody who’s played this music in an amateur orchestra, as I have, might just have found themselves wanting a bit less finesse and a touch more “abandonment” from the NZSO percussion!

A QUESTION OF BALANCE – Malvina’s Second NZSO Concert

Guest review by Peter Coates

It is 12 years since Malvina Major appeared in concert with the NZSO, 25 years since I worked with her on a series of television “specials”. Hearing her sing again with the orchestra is a long awaited pleasure. To hear her creamy soprano once again brings back many fond memories to me, and at least two sad ones. These are the two recordings I made with her with conductor John Matheson and New Zealand casts of Puccini’s “Tosca” and Mozart’s “Il Seraglio” for TVNZ that have never been completed. Malvina is special. She holds a place in our hearts because she primarily stayed in New Zealand during her career to entertain us, raised large sums of money for charity and has over the past twenty years worked hard to train and offer opportunities to New Zealand’s growing number of talented young operatic singers.

A goodly number of “grey haired” supporters – like me – came to see our popular “Lady of Song” at the Michael Fowler Centre double concerts last week. The first,a recital featuring the more dramatic arias in her repertoire I did not see, but I certainly saw and enjoyed her second venture into the Viennese. What never fails to impress me is the ease that she can sung those difficult pianissimo high notes, displaying the flawless technique that always has been a feature of her singing.Sadly there were problems though in the balance with the orchestra during the softer passages of her arias, which made her voice difficult to hear.Having recently spent time with Sir Donald McIntyre during the Simon O’Neill Wagner concert, and Donald Munro during his recent visit to Wellington, I have been reminded constantly about the importance of the words in performance. When you find the accompaniment preventing you from hearing the words clearly it is very frustrating, whether it be German or English. A recent performance of “Miss Saigon’ was spoilt for me for example by the distorted amplification of the singers, so the problem of not being able to hear accompanied vocal performances doesn’t occur just with the NZSO.

This contrasted greatly with the  Mozart 41st Symphony that began the concert, where the smaller orchestra gave the chance for the audience to hear the wonderful Mozart orchestration in all its glory. The beautiful interplayof the woodwind was great to hear so clearly, with Robert Orr starring on the oboe. Sadly Malvina’s softer passages were not given the same courtesy. Part of the problem appars to be the accoustic of the  Michael Fowler Centre .A position beside the conductor does not appear to be as accoustically good as the back of the choir stalls. I remember how clearly one could hear the singing of Martin Snell from that position during the wonderful “Parsifal” production in 2006. Having a reflective surface so close behind you certainly helps. Perhaps a position further in front of the orchestra might help? Links with the conductor these days can be provided by monitor. The audience in the past has been ignored by the use of “space stages”, bad stage position and heavy absorbent costumes that affect the ability of the human voice to project to the back of the hall.

The trouble is that it is the singer who tends to get blamed for lack of projection rather than the other accoustic elements involved. Should one blame the excellent conductor of the concert, New Zealander Tecwyn Evans – “ the first New Zealander to hold a conducting position in a major European Opera House for over 30 years”? Not if his wonderful Mozart 41 is anything to go by. Speaking to Malvina following the concert I got the impression that he tried manfully to get the softer passages sung by Malvina properly exposed.

I congratulate the NZSO for two very good operatic programmes this year, but I would like to see further exploration of the accoustics involved with vocal performance at the Michael Fowler Centre.

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